Jan 28, 2011
I remember when it first occurred to me that after someone said, “how are you?” and I’d said, “fine,” I could ask, “how are you?” For the first time ever, I saw that the awful, inevitable silence which followed my “fine” was not inevitable at all.
It took me much longer to understand this than it should have, but it took me even longer to work up the courage to put what I’d discovered into practice. I remember the tremor in my voice the first time I said it – how are you? – as if this was the most important thing I had ever said in my young life, as if everything rested on this question, on the answer that followed.
I would say that I was shy, but shy is not precisely the right word. Shy implies an earnestness, a softness. And although I may have started out as simply shy, it turns out the reason that no one asked me to my senior prom (for example), or invited me to parties on the weekends, was because I scared people. In my fear that they would not like me (or, occasionally, my certainty that they did not), I had adopted a prickly attitude that at best could be interpreted as aggressively independent, at worst (and most often) aloof.
I’m better at not doing that, now. I’m capable of standing in a room full of people I’ve never met before and meeting them. That’s how I met the man I live with. I’m also capable of initiating and maintaing a conversation, developing friendships and relationships, making small talk, making big talk.
But the thing I want to say here is, the reason I’m like this now is because of the internet. At least in part. And that part matters.
People are criticizing the internet all the time and worrying that it is separating us from our own reality, turning us into inarticulate, slobbering creatures, Calibans on a digital island. And I, who have been shy, who have been lonely, resent and reject the idea – posited in a recent Guardian piece about Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together – that “technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world.”
Because for me it is something that has made me more human.
I don’t mean to say that I don’t interact “in real life” (if we take that to mean “in the same room as other people”). I do interact in real life. In real life is where I walked into a pub without knowing anyone and walked out with the love of my life and the beginnings of a solid sense of community and belonging. In real life is where I meet friends for drinks and plot and plan and travel. Every morning I go into an office and interact with my colleagues in real life. And I don’t mean to say that the only reason I interact in real life is because of what happens online.
But let’s get one thing clear: online is real life, too. The things that happen online still happen, the voices you hear online are still voices. As Christian Payne (known online as Documentally) puts it in his excellent response to the Guardian piece: “social interaction online is still social interaction.”
So imagine that social interaction is a foreign land to you; that you hate the sound of your own voice, that you don’t know what to say, that every time someone asks you a question you can’t answer because you are too paralysed by the idea that you don’t know what to say. Imagine that you write scripts for yourself before you make telephone calls because if you don’t map it out you won’t be able to speak at all, and then the conversation deviates from the script anyway so you hang up in terror.
And then imagine that there is a space which is more sympathetic to your anxieties. Thoughts can be recorded, in writing, so that you can’t be later misunderstood through the fault of memory. Thoughts can be pre-meditated, considered. You can present yourself first – or a version of yourself, the strong version of yourself, not the version of yourself warped by too much worrying about too many unchangeable things – and then talk. So you are on even footing with everyone around you.
That is what I feel about the internet: that it is even footing.
If you are someone who does not need this boost, someone who feels naturally connected to others – or if you are someone for whom this does not matter, someone who prefers solitude – then I can see how it could appear off-putting. Online social interaction is often aggressively social. People follow you. Consider what this often means in colloquial terms: someone is following you. Someone is stalking you, preying on you. You do not want their attention, so it is not reciprocated. There is a perceived loss of privacy, a sense of diminished safety and security.
Online is a space that often does not feel safe and secure anyway, because it has no physical walls, no tangible presence. So to be followed online seems – intellectually – more threatening than to be followed down the street, because online is, theoretically, endless, pervasive, and intensely personal.
I get that. I also get that it seems, maybe, a little superficial. There is a physical distance, often, between two people interacting online, and maybe that physical distance can lead to a sort of emotional distance, too – is it harder to read signals, perhaps? Harder to identify what matters and what doesn’t? Harder to form a bond? It can be, for those who want it to be. And people for whom this is the case probably will not ever feel that online social interaction adds substantial value to their offline lives.
But still. “Huge swathes of socially impoverished disconnected people now have a voice and it is down to us to listen and connect,” Payne writes. And this is the thing, for me. Disconnected people are now connected. Isn’t that human? Isn’t that good? Including groups who have been – at some point or other – excluded?
The idea that social networking isolates us seems to rest on separating what we do online from what we do offline. But these activities are not necessarily separate. “That person you see at the bus stop staring at his phone or iPad may be me reading the Guardian or some other online publication. Would I be less isolated hidden behind a broadsheet newspaper?” Payne asks.
Online is just another space, another state of mind. Its beauty lies in its intangibility – and, simultaneously, its inhabitability. We even use a sort of modified architectural language to talk about it – we build and visit (web) sites, put up (pay) walls.
So the internet is a space for humans, not a replacement for them.
Other people are saying similar things. “The internet did not write this post. But it made it a lot easier for me to get it to you,” Dave Pell writes on Tweetage Wasteland, while over at the Independent, Rhodri Marsden writes: “Of course people behave badly online, but they behave badly offline, too. We can be fallible, annoying, even brutal; the difference today is that academics can observe it on the internet, and then state that society is definitely becoming “less human” in an attempt to shift some books.”
This debate – is the internet evil? is social media ruining the way we think? are we isolated and alone? – is getting tired. It’s evolving into something else, something more personal. It’s not just about a concept anymore. It’s not even just about a space; it’s about the people who inhabit that space, too.
Some of the people who inhabit that space, like me, find it an empowering place to be. And if “the way in which people frantically communicate online via Twitter, Facebook and instant messaging can be seen as a form of modern madness,” then so too can the way in which other people allow themselves to feel diminished by “inspiring and enhancing technologies”, refuse to see the humanity online, to empathize.
The thing is, the sky has been falling basically since the dawn of time, and Chicken Little’s voice is still not hoarse from all the lonely shouting, and yet we are still being human, in spaces with brick walls and spaces with walls we have to imagine.